Interview: Above & Beyond
Thu, 06 Feb 2014 11:20:38
It's always great to tackle a new challenge, even decades into your career. Electronic dance music icons Above & Beyond did just that with their new album, Acoustic. Breaking away from the norm completely, the trio re-envisioned their sound acoustically with fascinating and phenomenal results. Acoustic will move you in a different way, and that's the most wonderful thing about it.
In this exclusive interview with ARTISTdirect.com editor in chief Rick Florino, Tony McGuinness of Above & Beyond talks Acoustic, songwriting inspirations, and so much more.
What was the catalyst for Acoustic?
It's an interesting thing. We tried to do an electric live show in Beirut in 2008. I think we all found it rather disappointing. The nature of electronic music is it's very precise. It's played by computers exactly in time. It's very loud. It's a long way away from the frailties of human performance, but we're all musicians and we really wanted to play live. Having had that disappointing experience with trying to recreate something that's impossible to recreate, we did a little gig in a hot air balloon as part of a competition prize. It was two acoustic guitars, a singer, and a little piano. Because the context was so far away from the club, a hot air balloon floating through English sky on a summer afternoon, the versions of the songs were so different. We only performed three, and we took an hour to mock them up on an acoustic guitar. We thought, "If we release something live, we should do it in the context of completely live music and take it as far away as possible from the electric world we live in".
We wanted to base it on old wooden instruments where the voice and the song itself have a more suitable environment to perform live. The frailties of the live performance aren't so important. They're a strength in fact. That's one of the wonderful things about live music. It's a thing that happens second by second. The performance happens before your eyes. The little bits that are unexpected happen in this different scale from a record. It was a way to perform our songs with our singers that would enable us to succeed in playing it live rather than trying re-produce something impossible.
Were there any acoustic performances that inspired you?
I guess the history of MTV Unplugged with Nirvana and Alanis Morissette made us think, "It's worked for other artists. Maybe it could work for us". That was the genesis of the idea.
Did it feel particularly liberating?
The hidden truth of the Above & Beyond process is quite often when we're starting out, because songs become such an important part of what we do, you can do it with a half-baked electronic backing track, but it's a lot easier to sit down with an acoustic guitar or stand at the piano and write together. You sew the melody, the words, and backing together as you progress in that way. Often the start point of a lot of those songs was an acoustic performance. "On A Good Day" was actually written on a piano, while we decided to leave "Making Plans" exactly as it was when we wrote it. Those two are slightly different ends of the scale. For us, it is a part of what we do in the studio behind closed doors. It was nice to do it in public. It puts a focus on different areas of the song too. The melody is always important, but the nature of the vocal performance is more evident when the backing is stripped back. The lyrics themselves become more apparent. It was lovely to take the songs people have known in electronic form over the past ten or twelve years and let them bare.
What's the story behind "Making Plans"?
Well, it was a song written over at Paavo Siljamäki's house. He's got a piano at home. We were aiming to write two or three songs in a day. I had this list of interesting lyrical ideas. It's partly in a red book I've got, and I've also got a text document on my phone. One of those lines was "Time held its breath". I don't know where I heard that, but that was the start point. I started out with that line and it morphed into a true story that happened to me based on a photograph and a relationship that had a very long gestation period fueled by memory. It ended up not working out. It started out being something full of promise and fantasy on my part, but it didn't work out. One of the reasons we write in the first place is we're imagining we have the same experiences as other people and they can feel the same way you do. That's why we do it. It was nice to have that frustration.
What artists shaped you?
For me, there are two separate strands to my musical life. There are the electronic artists I fell in love with from 1995 onwards whose sounds and ambitions have really shaped the Above & Beyond production style. Before that and throughout the time I've been in the band, there are songwriters who work in different areas. I like listening to different styles of music, especially kinds where the song itself is the main point of the operation. There are different bands where the sound is really important. I think Above & Beyond is one of those, but I also think the songs are important too. There are other artists like Crowded House, The Smiths, Damian Rice, and Jeff Buckley. Those are guys where a song is an incredibly moving powerful piece of work. If I'm in songwriting mode, one of the things I tend to do is really immerse myself in the people I consider to be the masters of English songwriting. Michael Stipe is another one. There's something in the way those guys write that I find really inspiring. I don't think any of them write in the way we do either. I think the subject matter we tend to write on has become very personal to us, but I love the way Stipe uses fairly unusual words that just sound so great. There's a wonderful song by Crowded House that came out a couple of years ago. It's about the whole songwriting process. It was a wonderful insight for me. I think Neil Finn is one of the best songwriters. He wrote this song called "Don't Stop Now", which starts out as an account of a day with his wife in the car and the family one guesses in the background. They get a bit lost. The chorus is "Don't stop now", which you think is about the driving, but he adds, "Don't stop now. Give me something I can cry about. Give me something I can write about". It's the idea that there's a guy who's so good at what he does, but he's revealing the struggle we all have to get inspiration and start the process. That's the power of songs. He does it in his music.
Have you heard Acoustic from Above & Beyond?